By Jessie Pang and James Pomfret
HONG KONG -Hong Kong government efforts and last-ditch campaigning by candidates were struggling on Sunday to boost turnout in an overhauled https://www.reuters.com/world/china/how-hong-kongs-new-election-law-will-reshape-legislature-2021-12-18 "patriots"-only legislative election, the first under a sweeping new security law.
After eight hours of voting, turnout was more than 10 percentage points below the previous Legislative Council election five years ago.
The election - in which only candidates screened by the government as "patriots" can run - has been criticised by some activists, foreign governments and rights groups while mainstream pro-democracy parties are not participating.
Turnout is a central issue, as observers consider it a barometer of legitimacy in an election where pro-democracy candidates are largely absent, more than a third of the seats will be selected by a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists and a crackdown under a China-imposed national security law has jailed scores of democrats https://www.reuters.com/world/china/hong-kongs-jailed-exiled-democrats-lament-sunday-election-2021-12-16. Civil society groups have disbanded.
"Clearly, the government's objective is to secure a high turnout. Otherwise it may delegitimise this election," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of political science at Hong Kong's Baptist University.
The government on Saturday sent blanket text messages to Hong Kong residents urging people to vote, and some critics calling on people to stay away as a protest. It is a crime in Hong Kong to incite someone not to vote or to cast an invalid vote.
Hong Kong leaders say the poll is representative. They insist the overhaul, like the security law imposed last year, was needed to ensure stability after protracted protests that rocked the Asian financial hub in 2019.
Security was tight around the city, with 10,000 police and some 40,000 government election workers deployed.
After eight hours of voting, official figures showed 21.02% of the electorate had voted, down from 31.16% at the same point in 2016. That previous turnout ended up at 58%, while the 43.6% in 2000 was the lowest since Britain returned the city to Chinese rule in 1997.
Polls close at 10:30 p.m. (1430 GMT), with results expected on Monday.
Shortly before casting her ballot, university language teacher Tam Po-chu, 79, said the vote would promote stability and she hoped the new council would be responsive to the public. "There's no use if they do not think of the Hong Kong people," she said.
Chief Secretary John Lee, a former security chief, urged people to turn out, saying those excluded were "traitors" who wanted the vote to fail.
By midafternoon volunteers were still pressing flyers on passersby near quiet polling booths, lampposts festooned with flags.
"The situation is critical," Starry Lee, the head of the largest pro-Beijing party DAB said in a recorded loop played on a loudspeaker in the working class Wong Tai Sin district. "I urge everyone to vote."
Lee's appeal did not convince local fruit seller Jack Ng, who said he would not join an election that was neither fair nor democratic. "I don't understand why she is campaigning. She will win for sure, it is absurd," said Ng, who is in his 20s.
Others who said they would not vote expressed anger at the changes that some said had turned the poll into a "selection" and the legislature into a "puppet".
With transport operators offering free train, bus and tram rides, many stations were significantly busier than the polling booths.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, among the first to vote, told reporters at a polling station in the suburban Mid-Levels district that the government "had not set any target" on the turnout rate, and she was not aware of any set by the Chinese leadership.
"I don't have any particular expectation," she said, adding "there is a combination of factors that will affect voter turnout rate in any election."
Beijing’s Liaison Office in the city did not respond to Reuters requests for comment on voter turnout.
Before Lam spoke, several protesters from the League of Social Democrats opposition group chanted demands nearby for full universal suffrage and waved a banner reading "forced to be silent ... spirit of freedom, vote with your conscience".
In the run-up to the election, 10 people were arrested for allegedly inciting people to cast blank ballots, including people who had reposted social media posts from others, according to government statements.
Since China's parliament in March announced the sweeping changes to Hong Kong's electoral system, including reducing the number of directly elected seats, many opposition figures have declined to run, left the city or been jailed.
Of the 153 candidates contesting the 90 seats, around a dozen say they are not aligned with the pro-Beijing or pro-establishment camp.